When Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence, he gave voice to what would become one of the most highly guarded American values: equal treatment under the law. The phrase “we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” has been a rallying cry and point of dissection for lawmakers and activists with multiple viewpoints. The ideal of equal treatment under the law has been both a legal sticking point and a catalyst for major changes in the two-hundred and thirty-six year old nation. Controversies center on two questions: what are these inalienable rights and who exactly is endowed with them?
For a long time the meaning of “men” in Jefferson’s famous clause instigated major debates. Did African American slaves qualify? Demonstrably they did not. The question of African American citizenship began with the creation of the United States through the Civil War until it was answered with the thirteenth amendment to the constitution abolishing slavery, followed by the fourteenth amendment. The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees United States citizenship to anyone born within the country’s borders and was written to protect civic and political rights. The amendment contains the Equal Protection clause that has been used to protect people from racially based discrimination-not just the newly freed African Americans, but immigrants such as Chinese American business owners as well.
Our system of government is based on precedent, which means many of our practices are created through the interpretation of laws in the United States court system. The Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, therefore, was later interpreted in a way that it ironically gave way to practices of legal racial segregation with the outcome of Plessy v. Ferguson. It wasn’t until the verdict of Brown v. Board of Education determined that the concept of “separate but equal” violated the Equal Protection clause that racial discrimination was legally prohibited.
Notably, the rights of women to receive equal treatment under the law has also been, and remain to be a source of contention. The Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution gave women the legal right to vote, but the Equal Rights Amendment, which would amend the Constitution to explicitly name women as equal under US law, has never passed. In the midst of this ongoing debate and with new developments in science and technology, the rights of the unborn have become a major flashpoint. The Personhood movement seeks to give the unborn the same rights as United States citizens, and they have in turn run up against those who assert this change would encroach upon the right to life of others, particularly women. Movements to extend rights of US Citizens to undocumented immigrants have also entered mainstream politics as the world becomes increasingly globalized.
The question of equal rights for women, children, the unborn, and non-citizens, and the question of whether legal racial equality is truly reflected by the human beings who follow and enforce the laws is an ongoing source of struggle for Americans. It also brings us to the next point of contention in Jefferson’s language in the Declaration of Independence. What are these inalienable rights? Jefferson names these as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” which comes from John Locke’s assertion that humans have a right to “life, liberty, and property”, often repeated in the US Constitution and in particular the Fifth amendment. These rights are subject to interpretation, and this interpretation is frequently controversial and polarizing.
Controversy over what “rights” actually mean can be explored through the practice of Affirmative Action. Those who support affirmative action maintain that non-male, non-Caucasian people are at an automatic disadvantage when trying to access things like education, jobs, and other necessities. By the supporter’s logic, these disadvantages ensure that there will always be racial inequality, and the only way to create equal access is to mandate quotas for those who are not male and Caucasian. Opponents of affirmative actions claim that this is “reverse discrimination” and will prevent qualified people from being considered for positions they may otherwise have earned. One side advocates based on historical inequality, the other upon the current letter of the law. Both attitudes have logical grounds and are borne out of a belief in equal treatment under the law. It also demonstrates how people will typically rally against the extension of rights if they are afraid it will encroach on their access to life, liberty, or property.
The ideal of equal treatment under the law and the pursuit of justice and fair treatment is a driving force in American law-making. What these rights are and who they apply to have given birth to some of the most profound changes and movements in US history. One can assume that the principles set down by the Enlightenment thinkers and Founding Fathers were both explicit in ideal but purposefully open-ended in definition to benefit as many people as possible as the country, and the world, changed over time.